Later in life, Bernard Olcott (left) was definitely ascendant in comparison with his older brother Edward (right).
Given what Dad said, together with Michael’s move out of Richmond Hill, he very well may have been a bit of, as we say in the 21st century, a “troll.” Meaning that he was prone to saying outrageous things, just for the delight (and the attention) in seeing other people’s reactions. Such trait was not unknown in Dad himself, especially as he grew older.
So I suspect that Dad did not enjoy that same glowing, beaming face of Michael Olcott that I enjoyed as a kid. On the contrary, it seems that Dad was constantly criticized in his own home, both for real and exaggerated shortcomings. From his Mom and Dad both. That had to be harsh. In such adversity, just like Avis Rent-A-Cars, Dad had to try a little harder.
Dad described his early childhood to me in the 1920s as a sort of street urchin; I imagine he must have been like one of the kids in the ancient “Little Rascals” TV show. They made soapbox racers from, well, soapboxes and roller skates. They played baseball in the streets. He and his pals would ambush passing cars in the street with rocks, yelling “rich bastards!” and running like hell! That must have invoked strong reprimands from the head of the family, a real policeman!
In addition to running amok on the streets, young Bernie also kept his parents busy with his school exploits. He was an admitted goof-off in his elementary school PS 50 (see picture below) and earned the lowest grades in his class (“marks,” as he always called them). One seminal day, Dad recalled to me years later, his teacher tried something new. The worst students, who had been relegated to the back row – of which Dad was a permanent fixture – were now to come forward and take up residence in the front. The best students were to take their places in the rear (where they continued to be good students, of course). Dad was now in the pole position and the impact was huge. His grades soared, and he never turned back.
He graduated from Jamaica High School with honors and not only that, won admission to the highly competitive Cooper Union, a college of engineering located in downtown Manhattan at Astor Place. This was a prestigious school, famous for sponsoring each and every student at a 100% scholarship! (Although this might be changing as I write this).
At the same time, Edward graduated in what was quite a year –1939 – to be a naval officer. The oceans were suddenly very active. He was assigned a spot as an ensign on the USS Raleigh to help kick off World War II. His military service remained a mystery to me; for years I puzzled over his artifacts such as a series of wonderful certificates of naval service (complete with Neptune holding his trident) and his ceremonial sword with matching cap from his graduation at Annapolis. Until I got his service record from the US Military Archives.
We all see a lot of war movies, full of glorious battles and shoot-outs. Some films of this genre are bittersweet, and probably much closer to the reality of war – a great example would be Stanley Kubricks’ “Paths of Glory.” I couldn’t believe Edward’s service record when I read it. Everything was fine at the Naval Academy. After graduation he was stationed in Honolulu. In 1941, he was reassigned to the USS Whipple which set sail for Borneo just in time in late November. His luck turned bad from there on as he was afflicted by numerous maladies like “Catarrhal Fever,” which prevented him from performing his duties. He claimed that one of the commanding officers “had it out for him.” Remarkably Michael, seeking to help his stricken boy, prevailed on his friend, Congressman William F. Brunner to petition the Navy to transfer Edward from the Pacific Theater to the Atlantic. Needless to say, such civilian meddling in military command was resented – BUT! – the Navy did acquiesce and duly transferred Edward to the Atlantic theater in 1941. To no avail. Edward again had “troubles” and ended up in the US Military Hospital in Casablanca and finally transferred stateside in July 1943.
Dad, on the other hand, was serving at Fort Dix as a Lieutenant in the US Army. Up until the end of the war, he was training for a fantastic mission – to parachute behind enemy Japanese lines, infiltrate their radar installations, grab electrical panels, and evacuate back to base to analyze their trophies. Dad never eventually got sent on such a dangerous mission as Japan surrendered after two nuke attacks. In a manner of speaking, dear reader, you would be reading something else right now if not for the atomic bomb.
Despite Dad’s rising star in the family, obviously he and my Grandfather had an endless list of potential arguments to fill their time together. Sadly, that is what he had to deal with in terms of family life.
Dad’s solution to an unhappy home was to leverage his impressive education credentials into a new life. And life was looking up when he got married to wife number one in 1949. But after he became unemployed, and when she threw him out, he made a last attempt to build something with his brother in Fort Worth, Texas. There seemed to be a bright future in cooling homes in the Lone Star State.
So in late 1950, after his annulled marriage, Dad went down there to join Edward. But things were never easy within the family and this was the last time Dad ever tried any kind of business with Edward. It seems strange to believe that two guys could fail in an air-conditioning business in Texas, but the Olcott Brothers managed to do this. The exact method used has fortunately been lost in the sandy annals of time. I would speculate that, as seemed customary in the Olcott family, there was probably too much arguing and too little business talent (on Edward’s side, I would say). But as Dad told it to me, everything was looking very dire until he looked at, in a new way, the piles of scrap metal lying around the property. That had value. He managed to sell it off to not only clear all business debts but to also leave a tidy sum for both him and his older brother.
There is no evidence that his better military service record or his salvaging of the air conditioning business met with Michael Olcott’s favor. According to his NYPD service record, Michael retired from his 23 years of service as a NYPD patrolman on January 31, 1941 and thereafter lived off his pension in his home in Richmond Hill (and later, in South Ozone Park). Dad would often say to me, even when I was very young, that he would never retire. “To sit at home in retirement was death!” he proclaimed pointedly to me, finger raised in the air. Was that an indirect barb at his own Dad?
And to spite him, Michael lived quite simply and successfully in retirement for 31 more years.
There always seemed to be an ample amount of grist to mill in the family.
PS 50 Elementary School, 143-26 101st Avenue, Jamaica (Queens, not West Indies).
Copyright © 2015 by James B. Olcott